‘Fix the Damn Roads’ and Forget Education

By on June 7th, 2019

Mackinac Island—I left the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Michigan Policy Conference with the same feelings I had walking into the Grand Hotel.  More money isn’t going to fix Michigan’s education crisis—at least until we make some radical structural changes.

So other than inflation, forget dumping more cash into education until Michigan gets its act together. Forget supporting Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s proposal to invest an additional $507 million in the state’s 2020 budget education.  It’s a waste of our tax dollars.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Some are already thinking, he’s crazy.  Education is top a priority.  If it is, then let’s treat it like one instead of just dumping money into a system that’s broken and not delivering results.  At this point, no one is in charge nor accountable. It’s been that way for decades.

Chris Wigent, executive director of Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, had it right last week:

 “As executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, I see firsthand the challenges our public school leaders face in serving the unique needs of their students, often doing more with less.

“Our current school funding method is broken and treats all students as if they have identical needs. This obsolete approach dates back 25 years, and — as seen in the headlines every day — continues to fail our students as they plan for college and careers.”

Chris Wigent 

Wigent says the proposal could triple the number of literacy coaches and create a weighted formula to improve classroom resources for:

-Special education needs

-Low-income and at-risk children

-Career and Technical Education programs

He says the governor’s budget could also help local schools provide a high-quality education to all students by raising teacher pay, reducing class sizes and upgrading technology. The governor’s plan allows a significant investment in meeting the needs of all Michigan students and undoes a decade of funding gimmicks. If passed, Wigent says her budget could make huge strides toward improving every classroom in every community across the state, providing every child the chance to succeed.  Show me how and the benchmarks to measure taxpayers return on investment.

I don’t question Wigent’s thinking, but until we get our education house in order, why invest more money into a broken system? It’s a wheel with so many broken many spokes that are not connected to the hub.  The wheel can’t currently propel our educational system that now delivers subpar results —often ranking Michigan at the bottom of nationwide performance.

We might as well use the cash to “fix the damn roads”, bridges, rail, water & sewer lines, electrical grids and build a fiber optic across the state.  At least everyone agrees they need to be fixed and it doesn’t take an expert to tell us when they are fixed.

When it comes to Michigan’s education system, most agree it needs fixing, but there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Everyone wants to add different ingredients to make the best recipe for student success. Like many organizations, The Detroit Regional Chamber wants to “partner in shaping and boost education excellence for every student and school in the state.”

Unfortunately not much will happen with no accountability or anyone overseeing the big picture. Under our current state education delivery system, no one is accountable. The State Superintendent of Public Instruction is hired by and reports to an independent and a very political, publicly elected Michigan Board of Education. Most don’t even recognize state school board candidates appearing on the election ballot. The board is not accountable to the governor, like all other state agencies. 

Then add a Michigan Legislature that feels its place is to propose K-12 curriculum changes, like social studies with no factual basis and calls for the elimination of art in high school education with no consideration to its value.

Add to this, various well-meaning business and special interest groups complaining about the lack of work ready students and calling for more skilled trades initiatives.  

Then there is a hodge-bodge of public and private community colleges, colleges and universities, all run by either publicly elected and appointed independent boards that make it nearly impossible to impose higher education standards and align assessments. While there are efforts, like the Michigan Transfer Network, to make credit hours and programs transferable between schools, the process is often slow and only voluntary.

None of this takes in account the many national accreditation organizations involved with imposing its standards on secondary and higher education institutions for academic and professional programs. Our leader for college and university falls under Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, who has hardly stepped into a public school she oversees.  How does she propose to help Detroit Public Schools Community District charged with educating nearly 50,000 students.  Those who can afford it own two homes so their children can attend suburban schools.

The Detroit Regional Chamber wants to increase postsecondary education attainment to 60% by 2030 and remove the barriers to postsecondary education for the 693,000 adults with some college and no degree. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce a week earlier in Lansing announced it supports “efforts to narrow the skills gap and increase workforce and post-secondary readiness, as well as rethinking how students learn and teachers teach.”  

Detroit Regional Chamber President & CEO Sandy Barauh told Mackinac attendees:

“We are no better off than any other time. Change is possible, but we have to do this together. “We cannot solve our problem until we know what the facts are.”

Grand Rapids Community College President Bill Pink

Grand Rapids Community College President Bill Pink reported that by 2020 we will need 175,000 college graduates and another 166,000 with certificates or associate degrees.

“This is all of our problem,” referring that everyone resident has a responsibility to solve Michigan’s education crisis.

What are we going to do about it?”, he asked, calling for business, education and others needing to work together. 

“What are you going to do about it?”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has been credited for turning around Florida’s education crisis and designing an education system for today’s needs, says there is not cookie cutter solution and that every state is different.

“Florida had too many people that couldn’t read,” Bush said to some 1,800 Michigan business, education, government and non-profit leadership. “You can’t learn science and math if you can’t read,”

Detroit Regional Chamber President & CEO Sandy Barauh and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

In 2008, Bush founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Tallahassee, Fla., focused on state education reform.  He serves as President and Chairman. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a current board member.

To fix education, Bush suggests:

-Elect people that are big and bold. Education is a long term commitment.

-Reform funding with a budget that includes priority lists including reading coaches and summer school at the end of 3rd grade.

-Reward success with money that goes to individual schools, not the district, that show improvement.

-Add more AP courses.

-Fund PSAT testing for all students.

-When you have a chance to raise the bar, raise it.

-Celebrate success every opportunity.

-Get commitment from community and business.

Bush said he doesn’t care about the system, whether it’s early college, community college or national certification if it can help get a job.

“The system has to adopt to the needs for today. Equity in funding is more important.”

I have no argument with anything that was said at the Policy Conference, but until we can get all of the education stakeholders on the same page with some accountability, we are just wasting Michigan tax dollars. We won’t be going anywhere except remain at the bottom.

Ken Winter

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

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Tom Watkins
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Tom Watkins
Jack Lessenberry
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Jack Lessenberry

This is an extremely important column that should be required reading for everyone who can read!

Wendy Zdeb
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Wendy Zdeb

How can anyone agree with this viewpoint? Education has been ignored and cut to the bone over the last eight years and where has that put us? How can anyone suggest that this course of action should continue? Come on Ken.

Dan Behm
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Dan Behm

Ken, I have been a superintendent for 18 years in Michigan in two school districts. In 16 of those 18 years, I have presided over budget decisions that involved some degree or another of eliminating services and positions in order to balance expenditures and revenues. It first started with custodians, administrators, and clerical positions. Then it moved to classroom aides, psychologists, and interventionists. For the past nine years it’s been teachers and counselors. When I began as a superintendent in 2001, I had far more people available to help meet the needs of kids. We know what to do when… Read more »

Lorraine McMahon
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Lorraine McMahon

Anything that Betsy Devos is part of cannot be called Education for all students!


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